Last night something spooked the little animal by my side. When it happened, I felt her claws tense over the blanket; saw the prick of her ears against the apartment’s softer shadows; knew the sudden silence where her rumbling purr had been. I, too, had heard the unusual sound–some hard thump in a nearby apartment, or maybe in the walls: Nothing, for me, with which to greatly concern myself.
But when the little animal turned the yellows of her eyes in the direction of that sound–searching, waiting, listening for more–all I could do was offer up her name and a reassuring scratch, and wonder, when neither eased the tension beneath her fur, what sense her little mind was making of this thing that had frightened her. In general, what little-animal stories did she have at her disposal to grasp the many uncertainties in her life: the predator-roar of thunder and the vacuum cleaner; the hiss of rain-water under car tires on the streets below; the bark of teenagers waging turf wars outside the shelter across the way?
Leaving Plato’s cave is unlikely for little animals, but an ability to escape that cave comes with its own limitations, which form the lesser-known second half of this allegory in the Republic, before Socrates suggests the steps required to turn a curious mind at twenty into a dialectic mind at thirty, and a leader’s mind at fifty. I’ll never know for certain what made the sound that spooked the little animal, but my guesses in that moment were informed by knowledge not at her disposal–knowledge that made it easy for me to dismiss as harmless what continued to unsettle her. All I could do for her was to convey a sense of calm, and hope it would be enough. For all my ability to reason, I’ll never know what this little animal makes of the strangeness in her world, and accepting this fact means accepting a chasm in close proximity: a chasm that likes to curl up, purring, by my side.
With fellow human beings, the shape of this chasm differs, and perhaps runs deeper: There are so many stories we tell ourselves to explain the unknown, it’s easy to feel bereft of a truly common tongue. Earlier this week, for instance, I discovered that an acquaintance was reading one of her faith’s core texts for the first time, and I have to admit: I was genuinely surprised to discover that she was taking many of its assertions at face value. “So that’s why men have dominion over women–because of a piece of fruit.” “So that’s why this guy has different views on Israeli foreign policy–he’s uncircumcised, and it says right here that the uncircumcised aren’t my people.” Her comments required an adjustment in my understanding of how she engaged with text–and with this adjustment, a reminder that there are many dissenting ways to perceive and interact with the world.
This acquaintance had been struck, too, by so much affirmation that hers is indeed an angry god, and she asked me if this was the major difference between Judaism and Christianity, when “Christ sort of smoothed things over.” Her question gave me pause. Before realizing how seriously she was taking her reading of this text, I’d mentioned how conveniently Deuteronomy was found by the High Priest Hilkiah to justify the horrific purging of pagans under King Josiah–but when this observation was greeted as yet another impressive aspect of the grand “just-so” story of the Tanach, I realized that more care was necessary in what I chose to say about this exploration of her culture.
Consequently, I responded to her question by pointing out that Christ is given (by the anonymous authors of the gospels) to say many strident and violent things in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 10:34), such that interpretation plays a huge role in both texts, and a reader of faith tends to get out of these texts an amplification of whatever ideology they put in: violence finding violence, peace finding peace. When this approach to interpretation seemed to perplex her, I had to remind myself that I spend my days swimming in critical discourse, so it’s easy to forget that scepticism requires practice. My acquaintance is, after all, by no means unintelligent, but because she is also deeply community-oriented, with little experience in textual analysis, I understand why she might take a text labeled “sacred” by her family and culture at face value, even though to me its mystical histories seem self-evidently inaccurate. I read this text with only a scholar’s interest. She reads in search of a story to explain her world–to explain the strength and the vehemence and the nationalism of her culture–and, for now, at least, she’s found one.
On the other end of the spectrum, I also conversed this week with a fellow nearing the end of a life’s journey dedicated views that differ wildly from mine: a man deeply fascinated by a range of topics that indicate dissenting beliefs on evolution, religion, and the participation of alien races in the formation of human civilizations. He is a person I take great care (for professional reasons) not to engage over his conviction that “evolutionism” is a fraud. Nevertheless, in the course of our most recent interaction, he shared with me two events that changed his life in this regard. As is often the case, they were mundane affairs: first, a high-school acquaintance gave him a book that sparked a train of religious thought with a conspiracist bent; and second, forty years ago he listened to a radio programme that convinced him the woodpecker was proof against evolution. (It’s not.)
Just beneath that surface, though, lay something far more interesting for me. As he spoke, I imagined this fellow as a young man of considerable skill in his chosen profession, with a deep, abiding curiosity about the universe at large, and an unnamed dissatisfaction with what the usual progression of life had on offer. I imagined him giving his high-school friend the benefit of the doubt, and lifting his head from the book with a fresh appreciation for the world around him. I imagined him sitting in his car, listening to that soothing radio programme in the 1970s, with so much subversiveness on such pleasant and attainable offer. How could the grand narratives espoused by an alternative approach to spirituality, and an alternative to mainstream science that flattered his understanding of some elements therein, fail to stir in him a sense of deeper purpose: a quest to carry him through the long, remaining years of mundane life?
Persons with more liberal views are just as susceptible to such appeals to the desire to be part of something greater, which is why the moderately- to well-educated are sometimes the worst offenders for disseminating destructive ideas. Vaccination non-compliance, for instance, is highest among well-educated and affluent persons: in other words, persons who have a significantly stronger safety net to accommodate for the failure of their views about disease, as it plays out in the health outcomes of their families, and who have perhaps become overconfident in their ability to sift through the surfeit of digital information available on any given subject, and thus to make decisions about the science itself that might be better left in expert hands.
Similarly, we are in the midst of an intense conflict over “free speech”, a concept that once embodied the backbone of political resistance; a term now regarded as a four-letter-word in certain activist circles because of its more recent applications. It’s hard to find a leaping-off point that does not suggest fealty to either side of this debate, but The Atlantic‘s “Free Speech is No Diversion” (Nov. 12) perhaps best illuminates how persons of a liberal bent can hold diametrically opposed views in pursuit of a shared progressive goal. Most pieces on this issue champion a more extreme interpretation: that people who defend “free speech” in these contexts are sheltering those with the greatest social power from the consequences of their speech, within institutions that already tend to use corporate preference to set the parameters of acceptable social debate; or conversely, that people who use (non-corporate) economic pressure, social-media outcries, and even physical shows of force in response to systemic micro-aggressions are engaged in “thought-policing” on a level inching us ever closer to the brink of fascism or capital-C Communism.
I don’t mention the latter fears glibly, either. I have read the histories of China’s Cultural Revolution and early Soviet Russia–have wept over Zhou Enlai’s attempts to keep the youthful, revolutionary zeal of the Red Guard from entirely destroying the Chinese economy; have spent nights ruminating over the readiness with which the Russian people embodied the precepts of self-censorship, perpetuated class warfare between the proletariat and the peasants, and generally destroyed one another in fealty to the perceived moral righteousness of statist propaganda. I shudder to think of the same ever happening here, but I also consider part-and-parcel of that kind of extremism the perpetuation of any social narratives that themselves rely upon such a rhetoric of catastrophe, and in so doing imply a) that some immediate (usually quite fear-based, knee-jerk) action is required to turn the tide, and b) that there is ever One True Story standing head-and-shoulders above the rest.
In my time working at a bookstore, I have seen a profound range in the coping mechanisms and mythologies of my fellow human beings. Among the most affecting are the beliefs held by those who suffer from chronic pain, overwhelming grief, or otherwise powerful disappointments, and who adhere to crystal theory, astrology, reiki, books on guardian angels: anything to regain a sense of purpose and perceived control over their environments and bodies. The sneering man would say that such people need to be stripped of their ridiculous notions about the universe for the good of society–They are voting adults, after all! Meanwhile, the feeling, sneering man would say they need to be stripped of such notions for their own good; because their ignorance makes them vulnerable to exploitation by those who promise but cannot deliver genuine reprieve from their difficult circumstances.
I don’t entirely disagree, but there is a fiction at work here, too–a myth that the man who has walked in light (as he perceives it to be) can ever return to his friends in chains in Plato’s cave, and convince them that the figures on the wall before them are merely shadows. What Plato describes through Socrates is not some grand triumph of this contemptuous sort–the freed man shaking off with words alone the shackles he sees in other minds–but rather, a world in which individual unhappiness with this disparate knowledge-base is necessary for the good of the state; a world in which a man would be happier dwelling in the light ever after, but must nevertheless be forced to return to shadow, because “the truth”–as Plato declares it to be through Socrates–“is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.”
But let us go one terrible further: Let us imagine that, in this cave, there sit many men in shackles, all of whom believe that at one point they left this cave–saw light! saw the truth of their first shadows!–and now lie again in darkness, consigned for the good of the state to be surrounded by others who will never see as they see, and therefore never believe as they believe. In this scenario, it ceases to matter whether any among them actually left the cave; their visions of the outside world would likely stand in competition with one another’s even if they all had. What matters more is that each remains convinced of his singular removal from the cave, and thus privately considers his insight superior to that of all around him. Within this cave therefore sit as many benign dictators as there are prisoners, each varying only in levels of tenderness and contempt for the ignorance of his fellow human beings; each therefore firm, if also reluctant, in the necessity of shepherding the unwitting masses. Now we have a world of storytellers. Now we have our world.
With the little animal who curls up beside me, narration is easy. I convince her of a story’s truth by action alone: in coming home most every day; in keeping her water and food dishes full; by aligning certain sounds with specific actions and objects. With not-so-little animals, it’s easy to think that narration should be not-so-easy: that humans, as “advanced” animals, require alignment on a more overt narratological level to coexist, to support one another, and to pursue any common ends. And yet this is impossible to achieve in full. Even Plato’s Socrates can only gesture at how a man is supposed to lead in darkness, for:
When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good.
In this framing, it is enough to perceive for oneself a grander universe; that alone will somehow make the Platonic State a reality. And yet, the man who is returned to this cave cannot expect his fellow prisoners to understand his views, let alone believe in them. How can this grander universe therefore exist anywhere but in his mind’s eye? Subsequently, how can the cave contain anything greater than a body of prisoners, each convinced that utopia exists in his private thoughts alone?
I require no written document to treat the little animal in my care with kindness, but in the world of not-so-little animals, we often regard finding the right terminology and narratives as essential to good social practices. In consequence, using the wrong terminology, the wrong stories, can quickly undermine even our most well-intentioned actions. It is tempting to treat this as a modern phenomenon, but the tribalist impulse threads the long course of human history; we much prefer to have a clear understanding of who is and is not “on our side”. To rise above this impulse is not easy, and will probably never be permanent.
The best we can do, then, is simply to recognize the chasm between the stories we tell ourselves: how wide it runs, how deep. It is a generous instinct that leads us to try to reassure each other when fear of the unknown rises, but when we do, we have to remember that–whatever success we might find in the moment–what we’re ultimately reaching for is an impossible level of control over another’s inner world. Better, sometimes, simply to be present, to dwell together in that terrible cave and exude a level of calm we can only hope will convey all that really matters to the survival of our species. To answer, when someone asks of an unknown sound–did you hear that?–Yes, I did.
To accept that sometimes things just go bump in the night, and that it’s better (not happier, perhaps, but better) to accept not always knowing why–especially when the alternative is to reach for stories that only widen the chasm between us all.